The whole world got a chance to see on Tuesday what New York City residents already knew: The city’s Board of Elections is dysfunctional.
New York state’s Constitution requires local election authorities to be run by political appointees from both major political parties.
That means that the county-level Democratic and Republican parties in each county in the state appoint an equal number of people to lead ― and manage ― local election authorities.
Virtually every other state in the country has independent, nonpartisan technocrats run their elections.
The result, in New York state in general, and New York City in particular, has been chronic mismanagement and a series of embarrassing scandals that culminated in Tuesday’s revelation of incorrect results. The NYC Board of Elections accidentally published preliminary ranked-choice voting results for the Democratic mayoral primary that included 135,000 test ballots, rescinded them, and posted new ones on Wednesday.
“There’s a fundamental problem having partisan boards of elections,” said Jerry Goldfeder, a Democratic elections attorney. “An independent, professional operation would serve the people of New York much better.”
The Board of Elections’ errors and political shenanigans are nothing new.
In 2012, for example, the board botched the results of an upper Manhattan congressional primary by initially omitting votes in precincts more favorable to the ultimate winner, Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D). And ahead of the 2016 presidential primary, the board admitted to illegally purging some 200,000 registered Democrats from the voter rolls ― a sin it promised to remedy, but never fully explained.
And due to lack of preparation for the unprecedented influx of mail-in ballots, the board disqualified more than 84,000 mail-in ballots in the June 2020 Democratic presidential and congressional primaries on technical grounds like the lack of a postmark from the post office.
There is wide agreement that the lack of a premium on technical expertise, and reliance instead on well-connected party officials’ friends and family members to fill key roles is to blame for the disfunction. Staffers at the NYC Board of Elections routinely clock in and leave for the gym, smoke marijuana on the job or use their working hours to watch Netflix, according to a New York Times investigation in October. Patronage extends into the ranks of computer programmers, where Ruben Díaz III, the son of Bronx Borough President Ruben Díaz Jr., holds a job.
Mike Ryan, the current executive director of the board, went on medical leave months ago. He entrusted the agency’s management to Dawn Sandow, a Bronx Republican appointee, who lacks experience overseeing elections, and who was called a “disaster” as interim leader by a source in the New York Post.
The stakes are especially high this year. The June mayoral primary was New York City’s first major election to employ ranked-choice voting, making it the country’s largest laboratory for the instant-runoff method favored by reformers.
And the national Republican Party is more eager than ever to bolster claims of election fraud ― and undermine federal efforts to protect voting rights.
Already, Republican skeptics are seizing on Tuesday’s chaos as evidence that their concerns about election integrity, fueled by former President Donald Trump’s evidence-free insistence that he won reelection, are well founded.
Tommy Pigott, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, called New York City’s elections a “preview” of what Democratic voting reform bill H.R. 1 would do to the country’s elections. H.R. 1 would, among other things, strengthen federal oversight of state governments that seek to curtail voting rights with the stated aim of ensuring greater election integrity.
“New York shows we should be enacting measures that improve election integrity, not tearing them down,” Pigott wrote in an email blast to reporters.
To maximize confidence in democracy, voting should be much simpler. Duncan Bryer, Democratic strategist
Proponents of ranked-choice voting are worried that the mistake will reflect poorly on a system that had nothing to do with the delay in vote counting, let alone the board’s error.
Rob Richie, president of FairVote, which promotes ranked-choice voting (RCV), conceded that it “is a challenge when things are associated with an RCV election.”
What’s more, in August 2020, New York state expanded absentee ballot access by allowing ballots sent out by Election Day to remain eligible so long as they arrive at local election authorities within a week after the election. At the same time, state law still bars localities from counting absentee ballots until after Election Day, rather than as they come in, saddling the system with extra delays.
Even without the error, Richie contends that the Board of Elections’ as-yet-unexplained decision to release incomplete results, rather than waiting to release comprehensive results, was the “worst of both worlds.” The move, he said, ensured that results would neither be available speedily, nor clarify the final outcome when they did arrive.
The Board of Elections also did not respond to offers from the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, the nonprofit that developed the RCV software that the city is using, to tabulate the totals in a parallel process as an extra layer of quality control.
Richie praised the board’s willingness to engage nonprofits when designing the ranked-choice ballot, but said, “On other pieces of their operation, they were like a stone wall.”
Still, Richie expressed optimism that voters, more of whom turned out than in any NYC mayoral primary since 1989, would see through the mess. In its apology statement on Wednesday, the board itself made clear that “RCV was not the problem, rather a human error that could have been avoided.”
Critics of ranked-choice voting argue, though, that whether or not RCV is to blame ― and despite the fact that it functions seamlessly in places like Maine and San Francisco ― it might not be the right experiment for New York City, precisely because of the city’s notorious election board.
“When you compound that with other things like waiting a week for absentee ballots and the Board of Elections bureaucracy, you’re adding layers to a system and complicating it,” said Duncan Bryer, a former adviser to New York state Sen. Julia Salazar (D). “To maximize confidence in democracy, voting should be much simpler.”
New York City Councilman Daneek Miller, a Queens Democrat opposed to RCV and backing Eric Adams’ mayoral bid, wants to give voters another chance to stick with, or reject, the RCV system. He’s proposing a ballot referendum on the matter for this November.
“We want to do it now while it’s fresh in people’s mind and not in 2022,” he told CBS News.
Regardless of their views on RCV, reform-minded Democrats largely agree that amending the New York state Constitution to depoliticize boards of elections should be a top priority. Goldfeder even suggested as a temporary measure that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) use his executive powers to put the city’s board of elections under trusteeship and use that authority to overhaul the agency.
But Cuomo, who has already had more than a decade in power to solve New York’s election woes, does not seem particularly interested in reforms that would deprive him of his own power to distribute patronage jobs through the county parties.
Back in April 2020, Cuomo deferred to Democratic appointees on the state Board of Elections, which has an identical structure to the city board, on whether or not to cancel New York’s presidential primary.
Although Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) formally withdrew from the contest earlier that month, he and his supporters wanted the chance to amass enough national convention delegates to shape the party platform and nominating rules. The state board nonetheless canceled the presidential primary, only to have the election reinstated by federal judges in May 2020.
A spokesperson for the governor did not respond to a request for comment on whether the state should consider amending its Constitution to allow for technocratic voting agencies.
But Jay Jacobs, a Cuomo ally whom the governor tapped to chair the New York State Democratic Party in 2019, told HuffPost that the current organizational structure is ideal.
“Bipartisan boards are the best,” he said.
The state legislature’s two Democratic leaders, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who have shown an increasing appetite for challenging Cuomo, both issued statements expressing concern about Tuesday’s error.
Stewart-Cousins criticized what took place in stronger terms, however, calling the mistake a “national embarrassment” that “must be dealt with promptly and properly.”
She vowed that the state Senate would hold hearings on the New York City Board of Elections’ flub.
State Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D), the progressive Brooklynite who, as elections committee chairman, would preside over those hearings, wrote on Twitter that he is open to a number of proposed reforms.
“Stay tuned for a hearing date and bring all the energy, concerns, and ideas for change to the table,” he said.